Getting a drivers license used to be more than just a way to get around; it was a rite of passage, it was the way you met people, it was freedom. It was pretty affordable too; gas was under a buck a gallon, parking was free and insurance was cheap, so just about anyone could afford to buy an old car and drive it to college (which was cheap too.)
So much has changed. A new study from U.S. PIRG and Tony Dutzik and Jeff Inglis of the Frontier Group, Millennials in Motion: Changing travel habits of young Americans and the implications for public policy looks at the reasons that millennials are driving less and finds that it is a lot more complex than just the economy and the cost of driving. It is an update of a study we covered two years ago, and finds some serious difference between the millennials and previous generations.
The overall vehicle miles travelled is dropping. While many say that VMT is dropping because of economic conditions, the GDP and the VMT were in lockstep for generations and they started diverging in about 2004. There's more at play here than just the economy. According to the study:
Millennials consistently report greater attraction to less driving-intensive lifestyles—urban living, residence in “walkable” communities, and open- ness to the use of non-driving modes of transport—than older generations.
The past decade has seen a technological revolution, with the widespread adoption of the smartphone and social media and, more recently, the creation of a wide variety of new technology enabled transportation services, from bikesharing to real-time transit tracking apps.
There has also been an explosion in car sharing services like Zipcar that let people rent cars when they need them. TreeHugger has also previously noted studies which show that millennials are connected by their phones; you don't have to cruise Main Street to find your friends. And indeed the data show that this is the case, millennials and gen-xers are using tech instead of meeting. The telephone generation is much less likely to.
The EnvironmentBeing TreeHugger, it would be nice if we could report that millennials were giving up the car for environmental reasons. Alas, it does not appear to be the case. According to the study,
Driving less is often seen as an important step to reduce one’s personal environmental impact. Some Millennials report that they drive less in part for environmental reasons. However, environmental concerns generally rank well below issues of cost, convenience and ownership of a vehicle in determining how many miles people will drive.
Given that the car is the single biggest factor in our carbon footprint, that's a real shame.
Is this just a phase?
The Joel Kotkins of the world will continue to say that the suburbs are where people go to raise kids in single family houses, and that they will have to drive to do that. No doubt many will, but leading indicators like housing starts indicate that a lot more people are willing to start families in multi-family housing, which has recovered from the recession while single family housing has not.
The good news is that the millennial generation will probably be living at higher density in walkable neighborhoods,, travelling multi-modal using a mix of walking, bikes, transit and cars. The study concludes that governments should make their transportation investments accordingly:
...strategies that make more efficient use of existing infrastructure—such as transportation demand management—keep existing infrastructure in a state of good repair, and expand access to public transportation and other transportation options are likelier to deliver a sound return on investment amid an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future demand for driving.
See also Emily Badger in the Washington Post.